The good thing about living in central Japan is that you are only a few hours away from the Japanese Alps. The bad thing is that these mountains make planning a bike packing route pretty difficult at times. The Minami Alps in particular are tricky to navigate from the Tokai area. This means that, for the most part, you have to go around mountains to get to your desired destinations or brave one of the many valleys that are more often than constantly flowing with cars and trucks. Of course, if there is a road over the top you could take that too.
In April 2016 I decided to ride to Matsumoto (松本) in Nagano prefecture. For me the obvious choice for getting to Matsumoto was via Nakatsugawa (中津川) and the Kiso Valley (木曽谷) , a beautiful region of Japan famous for the Nakasendo (中山道), an old route from Tokyo to Kyoto. Unfortunately R19, which runs right through the valley, is popular with the aforementioned cars and trucks. With that in mind I chose to ride north to Gero in central Gifu instead, head east over Mt. Ontake (御嶽山), an active volcano that last erupted in September 2014, then through Kaida Highlands (開田高原) and on to Shiojiri (塩尻), before heading up Utsukushigahara Highlands (美ヶ原高原) and down to Matsumoto Station to catch the train home.
I planned for 3 days and I would ride my Fairdale Weekender Drop carring a tent and all the necessary equipment for the trip.
Day one – Kasugai to Gero
Day one was cycling through familiar territory. I have cycled on the roads plenty of times and knew exactly what to expect – quiet forest roads with challenging but not overly-difficult climbs through small villages and occasional towns. It was nevertheless a full day’s climbing as I slowly made my way towards the foothills of Mt. Ontake and the Chuo Alps. Both R63 and R85 are quiet enough to enable a leisurely and pleasurable day’s riding where you will eventually reach Lake Kaneyama. From there it is a pleasant descent down into Hagiwara just north of Gero city. It was in this area that I had planned to spend my first night camping.
I originally planned to camp rough along the lake but as I did not have ample food and water for the evening descending into the town was the sensible option. After the descent I rode along in the centre of town looking for a place to camp. I remembered seeing a sign for a nearby campsite on a previous occasion when I had driven through the area and sure enough on my lefthand side I found it, so went inside to make a reservation. The campsite was actually a small garden in front of a Japanese minshuku (民宿) called Akakabu (赤かぶ) and the owners were quite surprised to see me, mainly because they considered it a little early in the year for camping.
It was pretty windy by this time and getting colder so they suggested I sleeping in ‘the train carriage’. Train carriage!? With absolutely no idea what they were talking about I was shown outside to a disused carriage at the end of the garden. It saved me having to put up my tent, sheltered me from the wind and at ¥1000 I had a solid roof over my head for the night. I declined the opportunity to participate in the owners origami show later that evening as all I wanted to do was crash for the night ready for the following days climbing.
Day two – Gero to Shiojiri (塩尻)
Day two promised to be the big day of climbing as I was going to head east up and over the northern slopes of Mt. Ontake. The previous year I had caught the train to Takayama and then cycled the same route over the volcano and down to Agematsu before catching the train home. This time I planned to do a similar route but instead continue north and camp at Fujimi Panorama Resort near Yatsugatake.
From Hagiwara, Gero I headed north along R41 for a few kilometres before turning right and into the mountains via Suzuran Skyline (鈴蘭スカイライン) and R441. Both roads are some of the best roads in central Japan with breathtaking views of Mt. Ontake, Mt. Norikura (乗鞍岳), and Nomugi Pass (野麦峠) among others. Late April and early May are good times to cycle as the weather is usually just right. It’s a pity that you only see a small number of cyclist, if any, when cycling in the area.
It’s a long but steady climb up to 1970m on the northern slope of Mt. Ontake followed by a long descent into the Kiso Valley below. There are none of the usual shops at all after turning off the R41, with only a small resort at the top of Suzuran Highlands, and a ski resort on Mt. Ontake’s northern slope. There is a fresh water spring as you approach the top of Mt. Ontake but if you need to top up on supplies you’ll need to do it in or around Gero or Hagiwara.
Once you descend to the Kiso Valley try to avoid using R19 although it’s hard not to in certain places. The R19 is the main national road running from Nagoya north to Matsumoto so there are plenty of places to stop and buy supplies.
The original plan again was to camp but as it was running late and I had taken a lot longer than expected I called ahead an booked into a business hotel instead. Business hotels are pricey compared to campsites but most have a buffet style breakfast where you can fuel up to your hearts content for the day of riding to come.
Distance – 150kms / Total elevation – 2784m / Camping – Business hotel in Shiojiri (breakfast included) Approximately ¥7000 / Route //rwgps-embeds.com/routes/16251668/embed
Day three – Shiojiri to Matsumoto (via Utsukushigahara Kougen)
As day three was going to be my last day and as I hadn’t used the tent so far I decided the night before to send any equipment I was no longer going to use home. For ¥1000 my tent, sleeping bag, camping mat, as well as battery chargers, dirty kit, and other things were sent packing back to Aichi. My knees and lower back thanked me for it while climbing up the Utsukushigahara Highlands later that day.
Utsukushigahara Highlands like the Suzuran Skyline and R441 has fantastic views of the mountains, especially Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳) and is well worth cycling up there if you can. However, on weekends there seems to be an endless stream of motorbikes riding the Venus Line and it if you don’t like the constant noise of motorbike engines whizzing past then it’s probably best to stick to weekdays. There’s a lot to explore up there and there’s a nice little lookout with a small shop that you can take time out on. If the weather is cooperating then it would be wonderful to take a book or Kindle and relax at the top.
The descent down to Matsumoto Station is straightforward and can get quite fast at times so make sure your brakes pads are in good order.
Distance – 68kms / Total elevation – 1516m / Camping – Business hotel in Shiojiri (breakfast included) Approximately ¥7000 / Route //rwgps-embeds.com/routes/16251694/embed
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